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Coronavirus' Impact on Retirement Money in the Market

By Maurie Backman – Apr 26, 2020 at 10:36AM

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Stock market volatility has caused IRA and 401(k) balances to drop, but savers aren't bailing on their retirement accounts just yet.

The COVID-19 crisis has taken a major toll on the U.S. economy, and has been battering the stock market since the virus started spreading rapidly in March. It's not shocking, then, to learn that 401(k) and IRA balances have taken a hit.

The average 401(k) balance fell to $91,400 during the first quarter of 2020, according to Fidelity. That's a 19% or $20,900 drop from the fourth quarter of 2019.

IRAs didn't fare all that much better. The average IRA balance fell to $98,900 in the first quarter of 2020. That's a 14% or $16,500 decline from the last quarter of 2019.

Binder with the words retirement savings plan on wooden surface; eyeglasses, pen, and calculator rest on top of it while cup of coffee sits next to it


Still, there's some good news to talk about: Despite the massive beating the stock market took, and the intense volatility investors have been forced to grapple with in COVID-19's wake, Fidelity reports that retirement plan contributions held steady during 2020's first quarter. Not only that, but 15% of 401(k) savers actually increased their contributions during that time.

If you have a 401(k) or IRA, you may have noticed that your account balance, too, has declined from where it was at the end of 2019. But continuing to fund that account is actually one of the smartest things you can do right now.

Don't focus on the negative

If your 401(k) or IRA has taken a hit that's comparable to the drops detailed above, you may find yourself getting frustrated and discouraged. And that's perfectly normal and OK. But what you shouldn't do is let a short-term blip throw your retirement planning off-course.

While account balances may be down across the board, remember that this isn't the first stock market downturn savers have had to endure, and it likely won't be the last. But the beauty of saving for a milestone like retirement is that as long as you're at least a few years out, you have time to recover from market crashes and, in fact, come out ahead. Therefore, try not to stress over the fact that you're seeing a lower number on paper or on screen right now.

In fact, if you want to increase your chances of getting to retire comfortably, here are a few things you shouldn't do in the coming months:

  • Don't check your 401(k) or IRA balance obsessively. The more you do, the more disheartened you may get, which could lead you to liquidate investments and lock in losses at the same time.
  • Don't stop funding your 401(k) or IRA if you can still afford to make contributions. A lot of people are out of work right now, and if you're one of them, you may be struggling to pay your bills, let alone sock away money for a milestone way into the future. But if you've managed to retain your paycheck thus far, keep setting that money aside. Not only can you snag a tax break in the process, but if your employer is still matching 401(k) contributions, you'll have an opportunity to score some free money.
  • Don't shift toward conservative investments if you're still relatively young. A lot of people hate or fear the stock market right now, but if you play it too safe in your retirement portfolio by loading up on bonds rather than stocks, you'll limit your savings' growth potential and risk falling short financially later in life.

Nobody wants to see a 401(k) or IRA balance decline, but these things do happen. The best thing you can do is stay the course and stick to your original savings plan if you're financially able to do so. Give up on your retirement savings, and you could wind up in a very desperate position once your senior years roll around.

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